Comment: The new frontier: Homesteading on Mars

by Jacob Haqq-Misra
Friday, May 8, 2015

Photograph of Mars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope during opposition in 2003. Credit: Public Domain.

Escalating scientific interest in Mars and ambitious plans to send humans to the Red Planet in the near future raise critical questions about how extraterrestrial colonizations might be governed and how humans can best utilize the resources of space.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, launched in 2011, represents a continued investment by the U.S. in studying the Martian landscape to prepare for a human mission. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency’s 2003 Mars Express orbiter remains healthy and operational as that group plans further endeavors to the planet. In 2014, the Indian Space Research Organization launched the Mars Orbiter Mission, nicknamed Mangalyaan, which demonstrated the success of Indian space technology. And China has announced a Mars rover and orbiter planned for launch in 2020 as part of its rapidly developing space program. All of these activities, and more, point toward a future of growing worldwide interest in Mars exploration.

Private corporations have emerged prominently in the business of space exploration, and several have declared their intent to visit Mars. SpaceX, founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, delivered the first private space payload in 2012 to the International Space Station with its two-stage Falcon 9 rocket, and its Mars Colonial Transporter is being developed for deployment in the mid-2020s. Financier and former aerospace engineer Dennis Tito — who became the first tourist in space when he paid $20 million to orbit Earth for a week on a 2001 Soyuz mission — recently established the Inspiration Mars Foundation, which aims to send a married couple on a round-trip flyby mission of Mars near the end of the decade. Perhaps most ambitious is the Mars One organization, which wants to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars in 2025 “by creating the biggest media event ever” to attract funding. Although these projected timelines are likely to be delayed, such activities suggest that private corporations, rather than national space agencies, could be first to place humans on Mars.

While there is a distinction between exploration and colonization, the latter will likely follow the former, especially given the increasing pressure on Earth’s energy, water, food and land resources.

The concept of a space frontier, open to settlement by those with the means and gumption, conjures up images of the westward expansion across America, when competing settlers vied for claims to unowned lands. Americans were even encouraged through Homestead Acts passed by Congress in 1862, 1909, and 1916 to seek undeveloped federal lands, work to improve the soil, and file a deed of title to claim ownership. Although many lost their lives in failed attempts, the West was rapidly colonized in the years that followed — until all the land was claimed. Indeed, Congress ended all homesteading programs in 1976, with a 10-year extension for the “last frontier” of Alaska. Today, almost all land on Earth has been claimed by sovereign nations, so aspiring homesteaders must now look to the resources of space for unclaimed territory.

The momentum for Mars exploration is building, with no lack of volunteers for the first crew, but international treaties are unclear about the laws and logistics of permanently occupying another planet. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which was drafted by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), states: “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation or by any other means.” This treaty, which has been signed and ratified by 103 nations including the U.S., U.K., Russia, India and China, establishes space as “the province of all mankind” among all space-faring nations.

The language of the Outer Space Treaty explicitly forbids sovereign nations from engaging in space colonization, and so far national space agencies have limited their activities to exploration alone. However, the treaty is less clear about implications for private organizations, multinational corporations or even wealthy individuals who venture into space. Strict interpretation of this treaty could even result in an unusual situation where private organizations have more permanent access to Mars than national space agencies. This all suggests that new international agreements are needed if we are to think seriously about human settlements on Mars.

Antarctica provides a possible model for the shared use of space resources, although most of the land there has already been claimed by sovereign nations. The Antarctic Treaty System, which went into effect in 1961, limits activities on the continent exclusively to those that promote international cooperation in scientific investigation and are pursued for peaceful purposes. Antarctica also hosts a wide range of useful mineral resources with potential commercial value, but the 1991 Antarctic Protocol placed a 50-year moratorium on all mining activities and mineral exploration. Antarctica will remain a scientific oasis for the foreseeable future, although it remains uncertain if commercial pressures will someday override existing agreements. Nevertheless, the Antarctic Treaty System in place today provides a successful and viable model for sharing the Martian landscape among all stakeholders as a nature reserve and scientific oasis.

The Moon Treaty, drafted in 1979 by COPUOS, attempted to establish even clearer guidelines for the use of space resources, but none of the major space-faring nations has signed this treaty. The Moon Treaty would establish space as the “common heritage of mankind” and require “equitable sharing” of space resources or derived benefits to the people of Earth. This concept of public ownership is inspired in part by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs shared use of the world’s oceans without claims of ownership. Furthermore, the Moon Treaty would require that any property brought into space as a “fixture” remain open to use by all, implying that a private Mars colony would be required to share its resources with exploring parties from other organizations or nations. Although unpopular among the agencies that bear the burden of cost for exploring space, the Moon Treaty represents an attempt to make space exploration benefit all.

The lack of current measures governing off-Earth human colonization challenges us to think in new ways about how to use the resources of space fairly, efficiently and ethically. History has taught us that all resources are ultimately finite, and that resource-sharing can be mutually beneficial to groups that cooperate. Hopefully, these lessons from hindsight will allow the colonization of Mars to bring nations together through peaceful exploration.

Haqq-Misra is a research scientist with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, a nonprofit research institute with an interdisciplinary approach to studying the relationship between Earth system science and the future of humanity. The views expressed are his own. Email:

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